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Penalty saves and praise from Tevez - River's 'little keeper' Alan Diaz and his surreal Superclasico debut

17:00 GMT+3 18/05/2021
Alan Leo Diaz Boca River Copa de la Liga Profesional 17052021
The 21-year-old's very first taste of senior action came in none other than one of the world's most famous fixtures

As debuts go, there can be few more intimidating places to kick off one's senior career than away at the Bombonera in a Superclasico.

Boca Juniors' famed home ground may be more silent than usual due to ongoing Covid-related restrictions on fans, but Alan Leonardo Diaz still faced a daunting introduction to the game as he took his place between the posts for River Plate on Sunday.

Not only was the 21-year-old featuring for the first time for Marcelo Gallardo's side, he had not yet made his debut for the club's reserve team, and was not even under a professional contract at the Monumental.

But when 15 River players, including all four professional goalkeepers, tested positive for coronavirus barely 24 hours before the Superclasico, Diaz, who would otherwise have been watching the Copa Liga Profesional quarter-final from the comfort of his own home, was suddenly called into action and instantly wrote his name into the fixture's long, hallowed history.

Diaz faced a nightmare start 10 minutes in when Carlos Tevez, 16 years his senior, stole a march on Jonathan Maidana with the aid of a rather blatant shove and looped the ball past him with a mixture of his head and left shoulder, to put Boca on the scoresheet with their first shot on target of the match.

River, missing half of their strongest outfield team to compound their goalkeeping woes, must have feared the worst. But the rookie later came through with several huge saves, including two at point-blank range from Tevez, to keep the visitors in the game, before Julian Alvarez's late header sent the two giants to penalties.

He even managed to keep out Edwin Cardona's fluffed Panenka effort, only to see opposite number Agustin Rossi – himself deputising for Esteban Andrada, recently back in Argentina after 10 days isolation in Ecuador – save twice and send Boca through.

Nevertheless, it was a fairytale afternoon for a player barely known even to River fans, and one that could change the course of his career.

Gracious in victory, Tevez took the opportunity to congratulate his nemesis between the posts.

“The little keeper, poor kid, he was at home, he got called to play this kind of game and he did great,” the Boca idol told TNT Sports after the game.

“I went to give him a hug, congratulate him because he did great, I take my hat off to him.”

Before this weekend Diaz could have been forgiven for thinking his dream of breaking through at River, for whom he has played since the age of seven, was destined to end in disappointment.

The Lanus native is at an age where unless he signs a professional deal at the club, he will have to leave next month.

In the meantime he has been supplementing his meagre youth earnings by moonlighting in unofficial penalty competitions organised in some of Buenos Aires' toughest neighbourhoods.

On Monday a video came to light showing Leo stopping a kick on a dirt pitch in Villa Oculta, a shanty town on the edge of the city surrounded by onlookers – which perhaps explains why he remained admirably unfazed by the pressure of the Bombonera.

“It is very emotional for him and his family, his loved ones, who saw him in such an unusual situation as debuting in the River goal in a derby, with all that represents,” Gallardo told reporters of his new gem.

“And he has really moved us too because he responded in such a great fashion.”

Reports from the Monumental suggest that River are already moving to offer Diaz a contract following his Superclasico heroics.

Top priority for Gallardo and his charges, however, is finding out exactly who will take the gloves in their next match. Even putting out a team could prove difficult after five more players tested positive following the derby, leaving them with barely 11 players available against Santa Fe this week.

The Millonario included four goalkeepers on their 50-man shortlist (although they only called up 32) for the Copa Libertadores. Franco Armani, Enrique Bologna, German Lux and reserve No.1 Franco Petroli are all out of Wednesday's key group clash against Santa Fe due to their positive tests, and this time Diaz may not be able to step in.

A petition to CONMEBOL, which does allow players to be substituted in the case of long-term injury, would if successful allow the youngster to replace one of the above and take the gloves.

If the governing body decides that Covid does not come under the grounds of a serious injury, though, River will be forced to play the entire match with an outfielder in goal – Milton Casco, Enzo Perez and Jorge Carrascal are among the options currently under consideration.

Diaz, then, faces another nervous wait to find out whether his services will be required in yet another huge match for the side. But the praise of such illustrious football personalities as Tevez and Gallardo ringing in his ears will mean that no matter what the decision, the goalkeeper has experienced an unforgettable few days, which might just prove a turning point for his entire career.